Schooling ain’t Learning, India edition

I love the NY Times Fixes column, and the one yesterday from Tina Rosenberg is a definite keeper. In it, she describes the enormous gulf between student enrollment and student learning in India.  She writes,

“96 percent of school-age children are enrolled — in part due to a 2009 law making education free and compulsory for children ages 6 to 14. India is winning the battle to get children into school. But last year, only 40 percent of third graders could read a first-grade-level paragraph and more than one-third couldn’t even read words. Of fifth graders surveyed, fewer than half could read a second-grade-level story — and 5 percent couldn’t even recognize letters.”

It is thanks to a program called ASER, the Annual Status of Education Report, that we know how little these students are learning.  Much more importantly, their parents and communities now know too.  Here is a description of how the program works:

“Right now, all over rural India, this is happening: Two local volunteers with a few days’ training come into the village. They knock on randomly selected doors, asking to see all children ages 6 to 16 who live there. In the front yard of the house, they test the children one by one in reading and math. A crowd gathers: parents, neighbors, sometimes the whole village. Children jump up and down, shouting, “Test me! Test me!”

Each test is a single sheet of paper. The volunteers record the highest level in reading and math the child can manage comfortably. Then they to go another house: 20 chosen at random from various parts of the village. During October and November, volunteers will test between 600,000 and 700,000 children, including some in every rural district in India.”

There are myriad reasons that Indian students are attending school but not learning, but the leader of the ASER project believes it’s mostly due to a law that says teachers must teach from a textbook appropriate to that year of schooling.  While that seems pretty reasonable, it actually is damaging if students are falling behind.  By the time they get to the fourth grade, for example, they may have no chance of mastering the material for that grade.

So what to do about the situation?  Well, the Fixes column isn’t titled that by chance.  Rosenberg details a really interesting initiative called Read India. Here’s some of their innovative ways to battle this problem:

“Volunteers run weeklong Read India learning camps in thousands of villages each year. They test every child in the village, then share the results at a village meeting. At camp, third-, fourth- and fifth-grade children who are far behind in reading or math spend three or four hours a day using activities, games and colorful materials to work on the basics. Children almost always move up at least one level during the course of the week. Camp comes back to the village two months later.

Read India also works in the classroom. In parts of Haryana, Bihar and Uttarakhand states, teachers set aside the last hour or 90 minutes of the day to use Pratham’s methods. The same teachers who were getting zero results with their normal methods saw big gains when they grouped children by level and worked on basic skills.”

Very cool stuff.

Maceo: Take me to the Bridge!

For $6/month, your kid gets an hour more of actual instruction than the public school gives in schools that average 35% higher scores in reading and 20% higher in math than the public schools do (I know, I know, selection bias and all, but still……).

This is the choice for many poor but not destitute Kenyans. Priced out of expensive private schools and seemingly condemned to horrid public ones, these parents now have another choice: The for-profit Bridge schools.

They accomplish this by giving their teachers 300 hours of training, then giving them semi-scripted lessons and closely monitoring performance.

To me, this seems like a huge win, but the Atlantic managed to find one Western nay sayer.

Meet Kate Redman of UNESCO:

“Such an education is unlikely to spur the imaginations of the students or encourage critical thinking or social mobility. It is more likely to lead to rote-learning, and would likely leave little flexibility. There is no evidence it can serve as a permanent approach.”

and of course she also adds this:

“The school curriculum is more than the inculcation of basic skills. It is also a reflection of culture and cultural diversity,” she said. “Only by creating a national curriculum, incorporating cultural understandings, can authorities address particular local and national challenges.”

The problem with Ms. Redman’s lines of attack are of course that in the 30 years since Kenya ditched their colonial era school system, their public schools have not been able to even master “rote-learning”.

People, believe me, “rote-learning” is a very very good thing. Especially when compared to “no-learning”.

I’d like to ask Ms. Redman how many years are Kenya’s poor supposed to wait. How many generations of kids have to get screwed over, before UNESCO gets Kenya’s public schools to work?

I am happy (and frankly stunned) to report that the article quotes a World Bank executive who strongly supports the Bridge’s program.

EPN’s Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day/Month

The news from Mexico has certainly taken a turn for the worse in recent weeks.  While not so popular at home, Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto has been a darling in international circles for his willingness to take on controversial reform, especially in the case of privatizing Pemex.  Media headlines tended to be dominated by his bold reforms and the optimistic future of Mexico.

This week, however, I saw my first “Mexico as a failed state” headline in a couple of years and it’s not hard to see why.  Here’s a sampling of some horrible news coming out of Mexico right now:

Mass Graves Dot Hillsides Around Iguala as Search for Missing Students Continues

Mexican Military Executed at Least 12, Federal Panel Says

Criminals Turn to Metal Theft as Mexico Underworld Fragments

US Police Corrupted by Mexico’s Cartels Along Border


No wonder we are seeing protests that look like this:


Whatever happened to the 22nd amendment?

People, sometimes it seems to me like the Shrub is still in the Oval. Wars going badly in Afghanistan and Iraq? Check. Massive privacy violations by the NSA? Check. Gitmo open for business? Check.

And now, apparently, we may be re-affirming the Bush administration’s twisted logic on the geographic specificity of our commitment not to torture?

Why do we even have elections at all up in here?

Crime and Impunity in Mexico

Given the horrible news coming out of Mexico these days, this Economist article on crime and governance in Mexico is well-timed.  I think N. Parish Flannery (@LatAmLENS) summed it up best when he tweeted, “I think the Mexican version of Crime and Punishment is just Crime and …”

Here is the Economist graph showing both a rise in crime in recent years coupled with an incredible amount of impunity.


Perhaps the gruesome discovery of mass grave after mass grave in Guerrero, none of which seem to hold the missing students, will represent a turning point in this trajectory.

“I got sunshine on a cloudy day”

The BBC recently reported Chinese President Xi Jinping’s disturbing comments about art to a conference in Beijing of “authors, actors, scriptwriters and dancers.” While the Communists have always kept artists on a strict, “socialist” leash, in recent years Chinese artists have increasingly pushed the boundaries of what the state will allow in artistic expression.

Now the President has made it clear what he considers art to be, and not surprisingly there is no overlap between what his and my definition.  I’m sure much of the audience felt the same.  Here are some of his comments:

“He told artists, authors and actors that their work should present socialist values and not carry the “stench of money”.

Fine art works should be like sunshine from blue sky and breeze in spring that will inspire minds, warm hearts, cultivate taste and clean up undesirable work styles.

Works of art should present patriotism as the main theme and foster “correct” viewpoints of history, nationality and culture, as well as strengthen pride in being Chinese.

Yikes, this sounds like some terrible art.

Latin America: We’re first in machismo!

NPR has a interesting piece about a Gallup poll about respect for women around the world.  The poll finds that “for the second consecutive year, a wide survey found people in Latin America are the least likely to say they live in countries where women are treated with respect and dignity, ranking below the Middle East and North Africa.” While the results are subjective, since they are based on peoples’ opinions, it is still shocking to see Latin America score so low.

In surveys across 22 Latin American countries, Gallup found that “a median of 35 percent of adults said their women are treated [with respect] — about half as high as percentages in any other region of the world.”  Yikes!  Here are the median responses for other regions:  Asia (76%), Europe (72%), Sub-Saharan Africa (67%), Middle East and North Africa (65%). (For the US the percentage was 77).

In the Latin American region, only Ecuador had more than 60% of the respondents saying that women are treated with respect. As you can see from the table below, in Peru and Colombia, only 20% responded in that way.  The article notes one other interesting phenomena: the disparity between what women and men report on the survey:

“The widest gap was in Jamaica, where men were more than twice as likely to say women were respected (41 percent to 19 percent). Argentina had the second-largest gap (50 percent to 36 percent).”

It’s probably going to be very hard to make progress if men don’t even see that there is a problem to solve!

Do you believe women in this country are treated with respect and dignity?

Ecuador 63
Uruguay 57
Venezuela 54
Mexico 54
Panama 51
Suriname 47
Costa Rica 45
Argentina 43
Nicaragua 42
Chile 38
Haiti 37
El Salvador 32
Honduras 31
Dominican Republic 30
Jamaica 30
Bolivia 28
Paraguay 27
Brazil 27
Guatemala 27
Trinidad & Tobago 25
Colombia 20
Peru 20